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This bird-inspired morphing drone can slim down to fit through tight spaces

The big tradeoff with quadcopter drones is that in order to make them as stable as possible, their fixed design makes it difficult for them to fit through tight spaces. This doesn’t matter so much when they’re out in the open. However, if quadcopters are going to be relied on for inspection tasks in cluttered indoor environments or used for search and rescue missions that is a pretty big compromise to make.

That is where a new drone designed by researchers at France’s Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences comes into play. Their Quad-Morphing drone is able to rotate its arms to allow it to reduce its wingspan by 48 percent, and fly through some impressively small gaps as a result. To do so, it borrows from a movement more often seen in the bird world.

“Our inspiration comes from studies on budgerigar and also from a BBC movie on birds of prey able to morph their wings,” Stéphane Viollet, France’s National Center for Scientific Research research director and head of the Biorobotics research group, told Digital Trends.


Using this model, the team set about developing its innovative drone. During normal flight, the drone’s two horizontal arms, with upward-facing propellers at each end, sits perpendicular to the drone’s central axis. That is the basic form of a typical quadcopter. However, in the event that the drone needs to maneuver through a tight gap a series of wires rotate the arms so that they are instead parallel to the drone’s central axis.

In order to work out when this action should be performed, the drone relies on cameras to determine how large a gap is and whether the drone will need to rotate its arms to travel through it. At present, it uses an array of 17 stationary cameras and an onboard high-speed camera, although this setup would not necessarily work outside of test conditions due to the challenge of installing the stationary cameras.

Nonetheless, if the researchers are able to further develop this project so that it can do all of this using onboard cameras we can totally see how this would be an impressive addition to a quadcopter drone’s everyday capabilities.

A paper describing the work, “Agile Robotic Fliers: A Morphing-Based Approach,” was recently published in the journal Soft Robotics.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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